Racism is endemic in fashion. Naomi Campbell's 'name and shame' might be the answer

The catwalk is white-washed, and industry insiders have been passing the buck for too long. A new tactic from The Diversity Coalition might finally change something.

This year, at New York Fashion Week, 6 per cent of catwalk models were black and 9.1 per cent were Asian. 2 per cent were Latina; 0.3 per cent were categorised as ‘other’. And 82.7 per cent were white.

Like so many scandals in fashion, this could easily have been tacitly ignored by onlookers or resignedly accepted. Instead, a trio of industry insiders – models Naomi Campbell and Iman, and former model agent Bethann Hardison – have branded themselves as The Diversity Coalition and used their uniquely prestigious platforms to name and shame those designers who put on all-white shows at the Fall/Winter New York Fashion Week 2013. A minimalist website run by the three industry heavyweights compiles lists of shows which have excluded non-white models, often headed by names dripping with kudos: Alexander Wang, Victoria Beckham, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta.

The fashion industry isn’t known for its enthusiastic embracement of diversity. Take the so-called ‘size zero debate’: when agents were accused of recruiting models outside the Stockholm Centre for Eating Disorders as young girls with anorexia left their appointments, the industry responded with a collective shrug of all their bony shoulders. Outspoken commitments to slots for ‘plus size’ models abound, but the shows often fail to materialise. Various countries and Fashion Weeks have announced BMI-based initiatives intended to prevent unhealthily thin models from working and to stem the demand for them - then quietly reneged upon these promises. Pleas from consumers to stop heavily Photoshopped fashion photography that makes models appear impossibly lithe have also been met with the equivalent of a condescending pat on the head (let’s not forget that 84,000 people – mostly teenage girls – signed a petition asking Seventeen magazine to commit to publishing one un-retouched photograph per issue last year, which the teen mag’s editor never properly acted upon. But she did offer the 14 year old author of the petition an internship.)

Where race is concerned, fashion has an equally serious problem. Most of this revolves around passing the buck: agents say that they can’t take on as many non-white models because designers are reluctant to book them, so it’s bad for business. Designers say that because the agents aren’t employing them, they don’t have enough non-white models to choose from to fit their ranges. Make-up artists who have no make-up for darker skin tones and hair stylists who don’t know how to work with black hair argue that they can’t afford to train or buy materials for the types of models they hardly ever encounter. Fashion Week coordinators say that it’s the designers’ responsibility to hire their own clients, and to involve themselves in the process would be anti-capitalist. Magazines argue that the catwalk dictates what and who is ‘in’, and they just follow the money. It’s an age-old story of discrimination: each individual playing a part in a system that excludes certain types of people, and none willing to take any responsibility for it.

How should fashion respond? When someone important enough has brought up the issue in the past, it has been met with a brief surge of shame-faced tokenism on the runway. For the few non-white models who are lucky enough to have fought their way on to agents’ books in the first place, this realistically translates into increased competition between each other, and the driving down of wages. In order to make themselves desirable for the one or two slots available (if there are more than two black models in a show, it's apparently seen as 'a black thing'), these models often agree to work for less money. Once again, non-white employees are underpaid and underrepresented because of the colour of their skin.

According to a Jezebel report depressingly entitled ‘Fashion Week’s models are getting whiter’ – one that backs up statistically what Campbell has already said anecdotally about fashion moving backwards since she first started modelling – the industry is getting worse. But of course, none of these agents, designers, casting directors, fashion coordinators, make-up artists and stylists would individually identify as racist. No longer will this excuse hold, according to The Diversity Coalition. They have pre-empted the argument, and succinctly stated: “No matter the intention, the result is racism.”

Amongst all of their rhetoric and their broken promises, their refusal to ever properly identify or tangibly solve their own unequivocal problems, fashionistas have been caught short by Campbell and co's cool-headed approach. Numbers and names are harder to manipulate than vague 'calls for change' or 'commitments needed for the future'. Anyone can click on The Diversity Coalition's website and see exactly who is part of the problem. If enough people hold these designers to account, the famously inflexible runway royals might even listen.

Perhaps, having had their shows thoroughly named and shamed, we could finally start to see a change from fashion that goes beyond token black models on a white-washed catwalk.

Iman, Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell and Liya Kebede pose at the 'Blacks In Fashion' panel discussion in New York. Image: Getty
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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